I realized today that I really don’t have any experience with Asperger Syndrome. Sure, I’m adored by the sportos and motor heads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads. They all think I’m a righteous dude. What’s one more person with trouble relating, I thought? Think again.
There’s a guy in the office here whom I’ll call Raymond. He does some of the development work, and when I say “development,” I mean the bloke has serious SQL chops and does heavy lifting that most programmers aren’t capable of. Ray’s job description is to do this on the fly, responding quickly to client demands as relayed through the case management elements. Where the best of the project managers are only general practitioners, this guy is a neurosurgeon (“When people are in there praying, who do you think they’re praying to? God? I am God.”). Only, he doesn’t have Alec Baldwin-sized ego. He’s a quiet guy who resembles Norman Bates a hell of a lot more than Mighty Mouse. I just disturbed myself with the Norman Bates reference; we’ll leave that one alone.
So, I didn’t know anything was out of the ordinary when I first met Raymond. I myself worked in SQL for five years when supporting another e-discovery platform and I’m no stranger to the concepts with which he works. Although I’m nowhere near as good, I can at least speak the language. I’d wandered by a few times over the last month or two to discuss things that needed doing, and he always seemed to light up when I started talking ones and zeroes. We chattered away over distributed computing and joining tables and object orientation. I just thought he was another geek. So what?
Then Ray stopped by the desk I’ve been using in the project management area a couple of days ago, to ask questions about some work direction I’d given. You have to understand, the area is boisterous – project managers and their related support elements are people people, and there’s a lot of phone calls and kibbutzing going on at all times. As he was there and after we’d had a productive conversation about some redacted images I needed, I announced gregariously, “You see? This is why Ray is one of my favorite people in the office.” I watched him walk away with strange look on his face, and realized that my entire sector of the office had gone completely silent.
What? No, seriously … what?
“You can’t say that to him,” said one of my neighbors. “He doesn’t talk about anything beyond the work.”
“That’s silly,” I thought. But then I realized, even when we were getting on famously, it was only geeking out about the work we had to do. We were meeting on common ground professionally. I asked a few more questions and came to find out that no one knows anything at all about him. If you ask him where he lives, he’ll tell you “in London.” If he’s off for a day or two and you ask him where he went on holiday, he’ll stress to you only that he wasn’t in the office that day. Homeboy is highly functioning in his wheelhouse, but doesn’t know how (or want, perhaps) to make friends.
Fast forward a couple of days, and Wednesday I found out that we (the Yanks) were getting kicked out of the area to make space for a couple of new hires starting next week. I worked out of my hotel yesterday, so today was my first day back in the office, and I grabbed the cube space next to Ray. Owen had told me that he almost sat there, but when he asked Ray if it was okay, what he got was, “Do you have to?”
Clearly, and as evidenced by the scavenger hunt of cinema references in this post already, I’ve seen too many movies. I figured, Well, okay. He’s shy but I’m a fellow devotee of his art, and we’ll get along fine because I’m not pushing him or anything. He’ll figure out that I’m no threat and we’ll connect. And everyone will be impressed because he can be befriended, and that will help him out.
Let me say: Jodi Foster and Sean Penn and Leonardo DiCaprio and John Leguizamo and Forrest Whitaker and the majority of Hollywood who has played mentally or emotionally handicapped characters in a bid for a little gold statue … you’re not doing us any favors in our understanding, and you’re especially not helping the people whom you so nobly try to represent. If Anne Sullivan had seen more movies, Helen Keller would probably still be incomprehensively rocking herself all day in a fetal pose. There’s no two-hour happy ending. And that’s obvious, of course, so I guess my point is more than anything how surreally awkward it is to be in such a professional environment and suddely set someone off on an I’m-missing-Wapner kind of episode.
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but it was kind of bad as I was leaving the office tonight. I was in the desk next to Ray all day and doing my best to be quiet and respectful, but when it was time to head back to my hotel, I said goodnight to him. He just stared straight ahead at his monitor. That was no big deal to me, because I’m frequently so engrossed that I don’t realize I’m being addressed, but then I noticed that he was just looking at a weather forecast. Slightly odd, I thought, but I didn’t realize we had a full-on situation on our hands. I packed up my computer and stood next to his desk for a full minute, repeatedly saying, “Goodnight. Hope you have a great weekend.” He just stared straight ahead and as my standing there started to stretch into the awkward moments, he finally bolted out of his chair – still without acknowledging my presence or address – and started pacing the floor. He was mumbling to himself and scratching randomly, and more than anything you could see him praying to some internal deity that I would just stop talking and go away. Of course, I did.
Looking back, I say my standing there asking for acknowledgement “stretched into the awkward moments,” but really, that’s by my standards. I’m starting to imagine that every moment of the day since I invaded his area was awkward for him. And honestly, I don’t know what to do. Should I move? It’s a grown-up office and I don’t know how much accommodation is made for that kind of thing, and I sit where there’s room. This is an insane industry and he can’t be made of glass. Should I just sit and pretend there’s no issue at all, ignoring the look on his face like he’d rather I poured acid in his ears? Should I bring him fruit cups from the Pret a Mange as a sort of rent for upsetting his routine? Should I grab him and scream, “Ray! K-Mart sucks! You can drive, even though it’s not Sunday!” In the movies, there are equally stupid corrolaries to all of these ideas.
Or should I listen to the guy who told me that I’m not allowed to get personal or close to him. Bear in mind that while that sounds like reasonable advice, the rest of it was something to the effect of, “He’s not a person. He doesn’t have personality like you expect it to relate to human beings. Ray is a machine, a computer, a robot. Treat him like a tool and don’t expect any conversation out of it. Simple tell him what you need.” Because maybe my outrage over someone being described that way is only projecting how I’d feel if someone treated me that way, and in fact, Ray might thank you and say that yes, he’d be much more comfortable with that arrangement.